How Much Hay Will My Cow Need?

One of the questions I receive from people thinking about buying a family milk cow is “how much hay will I have to buy every year?”

My answer, which is my standard answer for almost every question, is “it depends”.

The first thing we have to look at is how much pasture is available and how long is the grazing season in your area. In some parts of the country 1 acre per cow is plenty of grass and in other parts of the country it may be closer to 3 or 4 acres per cow. If we figure that your homestead can support a cow with pasture during a normal year, the next thing we must ask is just how long is the typical grazing season.

If we figure out that number, we can figure out how many months your animals will not have grass. We know that the average homestead dairy cow is going to eat about 50 lbs of dry matter a day. If you plan to supplement with grain we can subtract the pounds of grain from 50 lbs of dry matter intake (DMI). Lets look at an example…

Say your local grazing season is about 6 months. This means that at least 6 months of the year you are going to have to feed hay. Lets pretend every month has 30 days so we’re looking at about 180 days. In this example the homesteader plans not to feed any grain so the cow will need a minimum of 9000 lbs of hay.

How many bales is that?, one might ask. Again, it depends. Are we talking about small square bales that average 50lbs or 40lbs? A large round bale that averages 400 lbs or 900 lbs? This is the next thing you have to figure out. When sourcing hay, you have to keep this mind.

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Also keep in mind that this is an estimate. It might not rain for 2 months and you might have to supplement with hay during that period. It also depends on how wasteful your feeding practices are. How much hay is being soiled and trampled and not being eaten? If you buy round bales and store them outside, the outer crust is not edible (string bales are much worse than net wrapped). These are all things to keep in mind when calculating and budgeting for hay.

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